Book Details

Author  John B. Bury
Publication Date   April 2, 2012
Pages  362


The first of these two volumes might be entitled the " German
Conquest of Western Europe," and the second the " Age of
Justinian." The first covers more than one hundred and twenty
years, the second somewhat less than fifty. This disparity is a
striking illustration of the fact that perspective and proportion
are unavoidably lost in an attempt to tell the story of any con-
siderable period of ancient or early medieval history as fully as
our sources allow. Perspective can be preserved only in an out-
line. The fifth century was one of the most critical periods in
the history of Europe. It was crammed with events of great
moment, and the changes which it witnessed transformed Europe
more radically than any set of political events that have happened
since. At that time hundreds of people were writing abundantly
on all kinds of subjects, and many of their writings have survived;
but among these there is no history of contemporary events,
and the story has had to be pieced together from fragments,
jejune chronicles, incidental references in poets, rhetoricians, and
theologians. Inscribed stones which supply so much information
for the first four centuries of the Koman Empire are rare. No-
where, since the time of Alexander the Great, do we feel so
strongly that the meagreness of the sources flouts the magnitude
of the events.

Battles, for instance, were being fought continually, but no
full account of a single battle is extant. We know much more
of the Syrian campaigns of Thothmes III. in the fifteenth century
b.c. than we know of the campaigns of Stilicho or Aetius or
Theoderic. The Roman emperors, statesmen, and generals are
dim figures, some of them mere names. And as to the barbarian
leaders who were forging the destinies of Europe — Alaric, Athaulf,
Wallia, Gaiseric, Attila, and the rest — we can form little or no
idea of their personalities ; rol Se atcial aiaaovaiv. Historians
of the Church are somewhat better off. The personalities of
Augustine and Jerome, for instance, do emerge. Yet here, too,
there is much obscurity. To understand the history of the
Ecumenical Councils, we want much more than the official Acts.
We want the background, and of it we can only see enough to
know that these Councils resembled modern political conventions,
that the arts of lobbying were practised, and that intimidation
and bribery were employed to reinforce theological arguments.

Although we know little of the details of the process by which
the western provinces of the Empire became German kingdoms,
one fact stands out. The change of masters was not the result
of anything that could be called a cataclysm. The German
peoples, who were much fewer in numbers than is often imagined,
at first settled in the provinces as dependents, and a change
which meant virtually conquest was disguised for a shorter or
longer time by their recognition of the nominal rights of the
Emperor. Britain, of which we know less than of any other
part of the Empire at this period, seems to have been the only
exception to this rule. The consequence was that the immense
revolution was accomplished with far less violence and upheaval
than might have been expected. This is the leading fact which
it is the chief duty of the historian to make clear.

When we come to the age of Justinian we know better how
and why things happened, because we have the guidance of a
gifted contemporary historian whose works we possess in their
entirety, and we hava a large collection of the Emperor's laws.
The story of Justinian's Italian wars was fully related by my
friend the late Mr. Hodgkin in his attractive volume on the
Imperial Restoration ; and, more recently, Justinian and the
Byzantine Civilisation of the Sixth Century have been the subject

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